Tech fight against online extremism gets overhaul

Tech fight against online extremism gets overhaul
© Greg Nash

Facebook fulfilled a long-standing demand from policymakers and advocacy groups this week when Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announced that a coalition of the country’s most powerful tech corporations will be formalizing its counterterrorism efforts into an independent organization with a dedicated staff.

In a public appearance alongside New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday, Sandberg announced that Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and Twitter will help form an organization tasked with confronting the deluge of violent and extremist content proliferating across their platforms.

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Heidi Beirich, an extremism researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the development “significant.”

“It shows an acknowledgement on the part of the tech sector that their platforms are contributing to radicalization and to terrorist propaganda and that I think there’s a willingness to take on that propaganda of all stripes,” Beirich told The Hill.

The announcement comes months after the Christchurch, New Zealand, mass shooting, which reignited governmental and public scrutiny of how tech companies handle violent and white supremacist content.

The suspect in the Christchurch shootings livestreamed the initial attack, leaving the tech companies scrambling to remove the disturbing 17-minute video that showed worshippers being gunned down. The suspect purportedly posted a racist manifesto online before the shootings; since then, two more alleged white supremacist shooters have been tied to radical online footprints.

Now, as the companies face ramped-up criticism from regulators and lawmakers worldwide, they are expanding the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), which they originally formed to deal with Islamic terrorism online in 2017. The founding members were Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft.

For years, the GIFCT has mainly been an internal project centered around a database allowing companies to share digital fingerprints from terrorist or extremist content.

Now, the companies say they will be investing money and resources to create an independent GIFCT run by an executive director and a full-time staff. The organization will include an advisory board stacked with government officials and working groups, including input from academics, according to Facebook’s announcement.

“GIFCT is announcing it will become an independent organization led by an executive director and supported by dedicated technology, counterterrorism and operations teams,” Facebook said.

Haroro Ingram, a senior research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told The Hill that he believes the new GIFCT is “good for optics” amid the furor over how the companies have handled right-wing extremist content.

“There is no question that the discussion [around terrorist content online] has improved,” Ingram said. “It’s getting more and more nuanced.”

But, he said, the recent announcement is “relatively superficial.”

“What will be interesting is how independent the GIFCT becomes ... the extent to which it actually shapes practice,” he said.

Each of the founding companies will provide the bulk of the funding originally. And the initial working groups are expected to address issues including intervening in radicalization and crisis responses. 

In the lead-up to creating the GIFCT’s new structure, the companies consulted with 30 nongovernmental organizations across the U.S., Europe and Asia Pacific, a Facebook spokesperson told The Hill.

“I think absolutely it’s something people have been calling for,” Daniel Kelley, the associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Technology and Society, told The Hill. “I think there is a desire in our space for there to be meaningful cross-platform collaboration around these issues — issues of terrorism, extremism, hate.”

But Kelley added that he’s taking a wait-and-see approach, noting it’s unclear so far whether the new organization will have significant or far-reaching implications.

Over the summer, Facebook held a meeting at its offices with academics, government officials, civil society groups and other invested parties to discuss the GIFCT’s efforts on terrorist content, said Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“There were representatives of Facebook there who spoke on a panel specifically about the fact that other forms of terrorism, including white supremacy, needed to be handled in the same fashion,” she said.

Since the GIFCT was created, each of the companies have publicly touted their largely successful efforts to take down al Qaeda and ISIS material. And now, civil rights groups are pushing the companies to more seriously take on the issue of right-wing extremism, which has been identified by top law enforcement officials as a major threat to the U.S. and often coalesces in online forums.

The GIFCT's new mission statement is to "prevent terrorists and violent extremists from exploiting digital platforms." The group will take on a range of extremist content regardless of its ideological underpinnings, it has said.

In the United States, for instance, many right-wing violent or white extremist groups are not technically considered terrorist entities, but their violent content could be stemmed by the GIFCT's efforts.  

The House Homeland Security Committee has been working to push the companies to deal with white supremacist content for months, with increasing pressure in the wake of the Christchurch attacks.

And following last month’s shooting in El Paso, Texas — where the suspected gunman, who has been tied to an anti-immigrant manifesto posted online, killed more than 20 people — the committee is working on legislation that would create a commission to recommend how social media companies can limit terrorist and violent extremist content from spreading.

The committee was expected to mark up that legislation on Wednesday, but Democrats pulled the bill, according to a Republican aide.

In a statement to The Hill, Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Extremists find new home in online app Telegram MORE (R-Ala.), the committee’s ranking member, said he believes the GIFCT announcement “demonstrates its members are willing to do their part to prevent terrorism and violent extremism from spreading on their platforms.”

“While there is no panacea for stopping violence before it occurs, GIFCT’s most recent action is significant progress,” he said. “As social media sites, internet platforms, other stakeholders, and Congress consider potential paths forward on this important issue, it is essential we honor our Constitutionally protected rights of free speech and expression.”

Rep. Max RoseMax RoseHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg would support delaying Libra | More attorneys general join Facebook probe | Defense chief recuses from 'war cloud' contract | Senate GOP blocks two election security bills | FTC brings case against 'stalking' app developer Bipartisan lawmakers dig into Twitter over policy allowing Hamas, Hezbollah accounts Hillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets MORE (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee’s counterterrorism subpanel and has headed the bulk of the committee’s efforts to confront online radicalization, wants a commitment to expand the GIFCT.

Rose has told tech executives at multiple hearings that they needed to create a “brick-and-mortar” organization and commit significant resources to building out the watchdog.

The GIFCT will be headquartered in a physical building, and the companies hope to launch the organization by 2020 with an executive director and a number of staff members, though they’re not yet sure how many people they’ll bring on.

“I’ve long called for the GIFCT to be transformed and scaled up in order to combat the spread of terrorism online because frankly, the status quo wasn’t working,” Rose said in a statement this week. “I’m encouraged that social media companies are taking this challenge seriously and I believe this announcement is an important step in the right direction—but make no mistake, this is just the beginning.”